Virtual Chicago Marathon – Runner Meets Joan Benoit Samuelson During Virtual Race


erika sahlman running alongside joan benoit samuelson on a bike

Courtesy of Erika Sahlman

Erika Sahlman’s first marathon was not what she expected.

Initially, she thought she would be running 26.2 miles through the Windy City—but when the coronavirus pandemic forced the Chicago Marathon to go virtual, she instead ran a marathon near her home in Pownal, Maine.

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And while running that virtual race, she got an unexpected visit from a previous Chicago Marathon champion.

Sahlman ran the marathon in honor of her brother, Karl Johnson, who died suddenly in August 2019 at the age of 41, while coming home from work in Chicago. It was his love for that city that inspired her to sign up for the race.

“My brother loved running. He did a half marathon, and his first year in the city, he said he wanted to do the Chicago Marathon, but he never got to,” Sahlman told Runner’s World. “I never really considered myself a runner, but it became my therapy after he died. It helped me through the grieving process. I felt the marathon would help, too.”

After spending the summer training for the distance, Sahlman built a route from her home to Brunswick, Maine, and set off on October 10 to complete her first 26.2. Sahlman’s mother had even made her a custom Chicago Marathon bib, featuring a picture of her brother and his birthday, 9377, as her race number.

erika sahlman’s bib with her brother's face on it

The bib Erika Sahlman wore for her race was made by her mom and included a picture of her brother, Karl Johnson, who died suddenly in August 2019.

Courtesy of Erika Sahlman

As she approached the final third of the race, around mile 18, Sahlman wearily waved to a stranger on a bike. To her surprise, the cyclist turned around and started chatting with Sahlman’s husband, who was trailing behind her also on a bike.

“My husband came up to me, and I got angry because didn’t want to talk. I was tired,” Sahlman said. “But then he said, ‘This woman on her bike, she stopped me, and said that she saw your bib and that she had won the Chicago Marathon.”

It turns out the cyclist was running legend Joan Benoit Samuelson, the 1984 Olympic Marathon winner and 1985 Chicago Marathon champion.

“I stopped in my tracks,” Sahlman said. “It was Joan Benoit Samuelson! She wanted to talk to me and maybe take a picture with me. I was at mile 18, and it was starting to hurt. I didn’t know how I was going to keep going. Now, Joan Benoit Samuelson is talking to me.”

Samuelson chatted with Sahlman briefly, providing much-needed inspiration late in Sahlman’s race. After a few minutes and a few pictures, Samuelson wished Sahlman luck and asked her to email her about how her race went.

With that, Samuelson was gone, but the moment will last forever.

“It was crazy,” Sahlman said. “I just felt like my brother had sent her my way somehow.”

Sahlman closed out the final eight miles, crossing the finish line with her family there waiting for her. Her two daughters were entranced by the story of their mom meeting Samuelson.

“My girls didn’t know who she was, so I was telling them all of the amazing things she had done,” she said. “They were so excited. They said they were gonna tell everyone at school.”

erika sahlman with her family at the end of her race

Erika Suhlman (center, red shirt) with her family at the finish line of her virtual Chicago Marathon.

Courtesy of Erika Sahlman

One thing that is also sticking with Sahlman is one of the last things Samuelson said to her: “Here’s to many more marathons ahead.”

Sahlman isn’t sure she has another one in her, but she definitely won’t forget her first.

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